‘Jeez, man, I got no idea what you’re fuckin’ on about. Marie? What about Marie? Marie’s all right.’
‘No, she ent, she’s dead and you strangled her, they said, it’s all over the fuckin’ news, man, she’s dead, and there’s other toms dead, right, it was all over the fuckin’ news.’
‘Listen …’ He rubbed his head now. He couldn’t take it in. ‘Listen … Marie. How do you know?’
‘I just said, it’s –’
‘Marie O’Dowd’s my girlfriend’s name, it wasn’t her.’
‘That’s it. Knew it. Some Paddy name.’
‘She’s not dead.’
He rubbed his eyes, then his face, then round his head and neck, as if he could rub himself to some sort of normal thinking. The room smelled foul. He looked at where he’d been lying, on a strip of dirty foam with a rolled-up newspaper for a pillow, and at the piles of rubbish on the floor, needles and broken glass and old bloody bits of towel and mugs with mould growing out of them.
‘Shit,’ Jonty Lewis said.
‘What would I make it up for? How’d I know anything about it?’
‘Anyway, you’re out.’
‘I haven’t strangled anybody.’
The man shrugged. Jonty had no recollection of ever having seen him before but presumably he had, presumably he’d been here all along. He followed him downstairs, pulling his belt together round his jeans. The stairs were broken here and there and the banister was coming away from the wall.
‘Jacket,’ he said, everything becoming crystal clear for a flash moment. He looked around the dark hallway, then turned and ran back up the stairs, mistaking the room and barging into one where three or four people were lying passed out on the floor, going into the next, and there was the foam and the newspaper pillow. And his denim jacket in a heap near the skirting. He grabbed it and felt in the pockets, all of them, and in the top right, where the button had come off, his fingers touched the roll of notes. Nobody had bothered to go through his stuff. Nobody.
Three minutes later he was out on the street and walking fast. He had no idea where he was. He didn’t recognise anything, houses, shop, road ahead. Nothing. It was dark and he was cold. He walked faster, wanting to clear his head, and wanting a drink and wanting a fix and wanting to find out if what he’d heard, or thought he’d heard, was true. Every few minutes, he put his fingers into his pocket to touch the roll of notes. And then, quite suddenly, he turned a corner and saw the pub, the Cotsworth Arms, and everything went click.
There were only a couple of people at the bar but one of them moved away as he went up and the barman gave him a look.
‘Pint of Strongbow and a Scotch.’
The man held out his hand. Money. Fuckers, he’d got money, did he look like he hadn’t got money? Maybe he did. Yeah, right, he did. He guessed he did anyway.
He turned and headed for the bogs. It was only when he got inside a cubicle smelling of creosote that he took out the roll of notes and pulled two off, folded the others and put them back in the inside pocket. There must have been a couple of hundred there.
Back at the bar he handed over a tenner and picked up his drinks. There was a table in the far corner with a newspaper on one of the seats.
‘HUNT CONTINUES FOR MISSING CATHEDRAL DEAN’S WIFE.’
He read down fast. Every paragraph there was a reference to other women who had gone missing and been found dead. Marie was named four times. Towards the end there was his own name. Police were continuing the search ‘for 27-year-old Jonathan – Jonty – Lewis, boyfriend of murdered Marie O’Dowd, wanted for questioning in connection with her murder’.
He finished his cider in three gulps and went back to the bar for more. A couple of people had come in but nobody looked at him and the barman served his drinks with barely a glance. So maybe there hadn’t been a photograph then. Though maybe the reason people weren’t looking at him and were moving away was the state of him, his clothes, his hair, his unwashed state. He knew what he looked like.
Marie. So the other guy had been right. He hadn’t believed it but it was here in the paper, and he knew why the police wanted to see him. Because he had form, because he’d trashed the van … only he hadn’t killed her. Hadn’t set eyes on her since he’d kicked the place to bits. Funny that. He couldn’t remember a lot about the last few days but he remembered everything about that night, how he’d felt, what he’d said and done, it was clear as a film in his head.
But he hadn’t killed her. So what bastard had? Some creep preying on women for kicks, some pervert. Not him. And that was so clear and straightforward that it wasn’t difficult to decide what he was going to do. Marie. He couldn’t get his head round it. She’d just come waltzing back, herself. Marie couldn’t be cold dead.
Two minutes later he was out in the street and looking to hitch a lift to Lafferton.
Even though Leah Wilson always put her alarm clock under a cushion on the carpet beside the bed it never failed to wake Geoff. This morning he groaned as usual, turned over and pulled the pillow over his head while she slid out and into the bathroom in a few quiet movements to try and give him a bit longer. She closed the door quietly too because once the boys heard the slightest sound they pinged awake and were up and roaring about and there was no chance of Geoff getting an extra fifteen minutes asleep. Fifteen seconds would be asking too much.
She felt guilty enough that she was the one working now without making Geoff’s life any worse by having to field Alfie and Jake at half past five in the morning, when it would be three hours of racket before they had to set out to walk Alfie to school. At least Geoff could leave Jake a couple of doors away with his mother while he did that – gave him and Alfie a bit of time alone together. Molly would give Jake his breakfast, and feed Geoff, too, when he got back. Over his bacon and sausage he would start the usual business of going through the local paper to see what jobs there were, which would be none, or at least none suitable for him, before he headed into town and the jobcentre. Where there would be more no-jobs.
It was still dark. These mornings it was dark all the way to work and for an hour after she got in, which made it feel as if it was the middle of the night. Spring and summer were best, when she loved the bike ride down through the quiet streets, sometimes in warm early sunshine – and even when it was grey and raining, the fact that it was light made all the difference.
Three months ago, she had left for her cleaning job at the printworks only half an hour before Geoff followed her for the first shift there, but they never met at work now, of course, never had the chance for a quick early cup of tea and a bacon roll and a catch-up about the boys. They still couldn’t believe how many had been laid off at the same time. Geoff had been at the printworks thirteen years, so when the rumour had gone round he’d thought his job was safe enough – he was one of the most skilled there, he’d come to it straight from school, knew nothing else apart from a paper round. But it had meant nothing. He’d had a reasonable pay-off but there were no thanks and no efforts to help any of them get another job. For a couple of weeks, he’d stood staring out of the living-room window like someone war-wounded, trying to get his head round empty days, after thirteen years of routine in one workplace. He had started getting the paper and tramping down to the jobcentre but even before he went he knew there’d be nothing – nothing in printing, that went without saying, but nothing of anything else either. He had no IT skills beyond using the computer at home, he had no trade other than printing, and even when he got to the stage of knowing he’d accept anything at all, anything, he was without pride, he still found nothing. Leah had her cleaning job, which had always been for the extras, Christmas and a holiday and presents, and running her own small car, but now it was what kept them, that and the Jobseeker’s allowance. Her car had gone straight off and the money was in the bank. She’d got out the old bike and Geoff had sorted it out and after a week she’d started enjoying it, as well as noticing that her waistline had shrunk a bit. He was happy looking after the boys till she got back at eleven, and later, when she went to do her shift in the pub, and there was always Molly. But Molly wanted to stick her oar in too much about how the boys were brought up, so Leah didn’t want Molly having them more than was necessary.
It was hard though – not so much doing two jobs, as doing one early shift and one late, so she never got her full sleep except on Saturday night when she didn’t do the pub or the cleaning and could have a lie-in. Geoff was brilliant about that. He got the boys up and took them out to do the shopping and then gave them the treat of the week, the supermarket breakfast. If it was fine they went somewhere else, the park or over to his brother’s, so Leah could sleep in till half eleven, and there was still time to get the dinner on ready for them coming back. Without Sunday morning, she couldn’t have held it all together.
The house was still quiet. She made her tea and had two slices of bread and marg. She used to have cereal with the boys but now they got the cheapest brand she’d given it up because it tasted of sawdust. The boys didn’t notice. She left the kettle full and laid the table quickly. She liked to have the radio on in the morning to keep her going but it wasn’t worth risking the boys hearing it – let Geoff have as long as he could get. Only Geoff walked into the kitchen as she was ready to go, hair on end, unshaven. Leah turned and lit the gas again under the kettle.
‘That’ll only be a minute. All right, love?’
‘Yeah, I didn’t go back again.’
‘I was worrying, if you want to know.’
‘Well, don’t – worrying won’t get you a job. Something’ll turn up, you couldn’t be looking harder.’
She took her jacket off the back of the chair.
‘Look, don’t go the canal way. You know why. I don’t want to think of you going over that bridge. Go the long way round, doesn’t matter if it makes you a bit late.’
‘That’s just the kind of thing gets people the sack, being a bit late without a good reason, and if I get the sack –’
‘It’s not without a good reason, is it? If they don’t know that …’
The kettle started to whistle. He dropped two strong tea bags into his mug.
‘Can you try doing with just one of those? I know tea bags aren’t that dear but we get through a heck of a lot.’
‘No, I can’t. There’s some things I can’t do and having weak tea first thing is one, as you bloomin’ well know. Only we weren’t talking about that.’
‘I’ve got to go. Look, I tell you one thing. I’m safer going that way at the moment than I’ve ever been. Have you seen what it’s like down there? Police cars, coppers walking in twos along the towpath, great big lights, police van at the entrance to the works. You’d be more at risk inside Scotland Yard.’
Geoff sat down and stirred his tea. ‘If you say so.’
‘I’m not daft.’
‘But I am going. Just in time …’ She kissed Geoff on the back of his neck and went for the back door as she heard the sound of footsteps running across the landing. Geoff groaned. Then he said, very quickly, as if he’d had the words ready and been unable to find the right moment to say them, ‘If I don’t get a job soon, you know, we’ll have to sell the Sprite.’
Leah stopped dead on her way out of the door. ‘I’ll go out and do twenty cleaning jobs if I have to before we get rid of the caravan. It’s the one thing we’ve got, Geoff, the one thing we –’
‘I know. Only –’
‘Only nothing. It’s not even worth much.’
‘Thousand or two.’
‘In your dreams. Anyway, dream on, because no way are we selling it. Besides, there’s a job out there with your number on it – you wait.’
‘That’s the trouble. Waiting, bloody waiting.’
The boys hurtled into the kitchen. Leah fled.
Unless it was pouring with rain or there was a gale, she enjoyed the quiet bike ride to work. She was happy pedalling along and thinking, even if the thoughts were too often fretful ones, about the absence of jobs and money, about Geoff’s morale, about the future. This morning, she tried to put what he had said about selling the caravan out of her mind but it wouldn’t go. They had bought the Sprite the year they were married and been everywhere, almost every weekend, taking off to the sea, the hills, to festivals. In the Easter and summer holidays they’d gone as far as Ireland and the Scottish lochs, though once the boys were born, it was generally to the seaside. It wasn’t only cheap holidays, it was family holidays, it was fun and an adventure and it was freedom. When Geoff had spent his days in the din of the printworks, to get away somewhere quiet on Friday afternoon for two whole days and nights was the best way for him to unwind.
She had meant it. If there were more cleaning jobs, she would take them. Anything, so as not to have to sell the caravan.
Geoff had been fretting for days about her riding along the towpath, but as she pedalled down the side street that ran towards the canal, she saw the police van that was now stationed permanently at the top. One morning, there had been dogs with their handlers sniffing along the bushes – not this morning. She liked the smell of the canal, a green, watery smell that reminded her of something from her childhood – maybe the old ponds they had spent so much time at during the long summer holidays. You wouldn’t do that now, let your own kids play beside deep water miles from anywhere, but things were so different then. They’d looked out for one another. Nothing had happened. Only she wasn’t about to let her boys go off on their own the way she and her brother had.
She was thinking about how it had been then, messing about by the ponds, when she felt something pull sharply on her back wheel from behind. She looked quickly round, thinking she’d got it caught in a tree root or that somehow the wheel had buckled, but by then she was off the bike and something was pressing round her mouth as she was dragged away from the towpath under the footbridge. She kicked her feet hopelessly but the arm, which she knew it was, tightened. The last thing she heard was the sound of something splashing into the canal and the last thing she saw was the darkness under the bridge.
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